Commentary

Google Keeps Privacy Snafu Too Quiet For Too Long

One of the most vexing issues concerning online privacy is that consumers often have no way of knowing whether companies are honoring their promises.

Web users can opt out of being tracked, or even delete their cookies, but in many cases they then simply trust that their choices are being respected. The problem is, that doesn't always happen. Sometimes companies deliberately disregard users' privacy (as when AOL released search queries of 650,000 users), and sometimes privacy snafus occur by accident (as when an AT&T glitch allowed Facebook users to log into other people's accounts from mobile phones).

Either way, it's a concern.

Now Ben Edelman, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, points to yet another privacy problem, this time with Google. Edelman found that a recent version of Google's toolbar was sending information about users' Web activity back to Google even when users thought they had disabled the toolbar.

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Google said the inadvertent tracking was the result of a bug, and that it had taken care of the problem this morning. While the fix came out the same day as Edelman's report, Google had been working on it for a while.

Google also said in a statement that the glitch affected only a small number of users. "Specifically it affects those using Google Toolbar versions 6.3.911.1819 through 6.4.1311.42 in Internet Explorer, with enhanced features enabled, who chose to disable Toolbar without uninstalling it. Once the user restarts the browser, the issue is no longer present." the company said in a statement. It also released a new fix at www.google.com/toolbar.

Edelman certainly isn't a disinterested observer. He is co-counsel in a lawsuit against Google and consults with companies that compete with the search giant.

But that doesn't make his report any less troubling. In fact, it raises real questions about how seriously Google takes its privacy commitments.

Yes, coding errors can happen to any company. But that doesn't explain why Google didn't alert users to the toolbar problem -- and tell people that if they enabled enhanced features (like SideWiki and PageRank) and didn't want to be tracked, they should restart their browsers rather than disable the toolbar -- as soon as Google learned of the bug.

If Web companies want to persuade consumers -- and Congress -- that no new privacy regulations are needed, the least those companies can do is inform users of potential privacy issues as soon as possible.

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